5.4.2021 Dinner in The Rio Grande Valley
Enchiladas de Queso
Cheese - the type and the quantity - is one of the main flashpoints in the debate over authenticity in Tex-Mex food. These enchiladas are more like the Mexican dish tortillas enchiladas than the cheesy dish we commonly encounter in the US. “Enchilada” literally means “with chile”, and the cheese here is mild - a lesser ingredient to the chiles. On the far “indigenous” end of the spectrum, there wouldn’t be any cheese at all, as domesticated dairy animals were introduced by European explorers; somewhere in the “Texas American” range of the spectrum, the cheese is usually white fresh cheese (queso fresco, as in this dish); slightly further along the spectrum is the cheddar and Monterey Jack-smothering of contemporary Tex-Mex; and on the other end of the spectrum, the queso isn’t really queso at all (it’s more of a “cheese product”)! (Contains gluten, dairy; vegetarian).
Carne con Chile
Chile or chili? Chile is the spelling of the pepper, while chili refers to the familiar meat/tomato/chile stew. The two are - obviously - not unrelated; the stew was originally called carne con chile (meat with chile peppers), but the words were swapped around (chile con carne), and the spelling was changed, and we ended up with chili. Chili is perhaps the most well-known Texas Mexican food; it was concocted on the ranches of south Texas, and popularized in San Antonio by the “chili queens” who sold chile con carne out of open-air stalls from the 1880s to the 1930s. Our version is an homage to the women who helped popularize this now-ubiquitous dish, beef shoulder slow cooked in a sauce of guajillo, ancho and chipotle chilis with onion, cumin and Mexican oregano. (No gluten, dairy-free if you omit the cheddar garnish).
Giant pots of beans, stewed with bits and scraps of meat over an open fire, have fed legions of cowboys on the ranches of southern Texas and northern Mexico. The addition of beer is what makes them borracho (drunk); without the beer, they are frijoles charros (cowboy beans). Most shell beans are native to Mexico, and have been cultivated there for at least 7000 years. We use creamy, mild pinto beans, as is typical in northern Mexico. We added bacon in lieu of the meat scraps here! (Contains gluten; no dairy).
Pan de Maiz
Corn was first domesticated in Mexico around 5000-7000 BCE, and was cultivated across Mesoamerica by native people for thousands of years prior to the arrival of European colonizers. It is a staple food in Mexico, and shows up at most meals in the form of tortillas. Though the internet abounds with recipes for “Mexican Cornbread” (cornbread with chiles and cheese), cornbread is a North American creation. There is regional variation within the US, and this Texan version is typical of Southern cornbread - not very sweet, with a dry and crumbly texture - perfect for dipping in your frijoles or your chili! (Contains eggs, gluten, dairy; vegetarian).
Chile con Queso
Chile con queso is a norteño dish - common in the north of Mexico, and it is the origin of the much-beloved queso dip that is a staple in many contemporary Tex-Mex restaurants. Much like the enchiladas above, this dish is more about the chiles, and less about the cheese. Fresh, whole chiles are a staple ingredient in Texas American cooking, and cooks develop signature combinations of the countless types of chiles. Chiles are used not only for “spiciness”, but to add color, depth of flavor, and to elevate the flavor of other ingredients in a dish - some chiles have a very subtle flavor, such as the roasted poblanos used in this dish, while others will absolutely set your mouth on fire! (Contains dairy; vegetarian, no gluten).
Pepino y Jícama con Chile y Limón
We’ve mentioned before that cucumbers are one of the oldest cultivated vegetables in the world, and many of our menus feature cucumbers in some form! Jícama is native to Mexico, and hasn’t quite caught on all over the world in the same way, but it’s mild flavor and crunchy texture make it another great ingredient for salads. Both cucumber and jícama, cut into spears and sprinkled with chile and lime, are common snacks and street vendor fare in Mexico. Here, we’ve diced them small, added radishes and tossed in some fresh mint and cilantro before finishing with a lime juice and agave syrup vinaigrette. (No gluten, vegan).
This Mexican version of bread pudding is traditionally eaten on Lenten Fridays, when Catholics are abstaining from meat consumption. Some people claim that the ingredients represent the suffering of Christ on the Cross on the Friday before Easter, and others claim that the protein from the cheese and the eggs helps to fortify the meatless faithful. It’s sweet and savory, and though there are variations, it almost always contains nuts, raisins, eggs and cheese. We think it’s just delicious, and that’s a good reason to have it any time! (Contains eggs, nuts, gluten, dairy; vegetarian).
Nothing goes with spicy food quite like a cold beer, and ranking at 7th in the country and 4th in the world in production by volume, Texas & Mexico (respectively) both have a lot to offer in terms of brews. We’d recommend something light and easy drinking to temper the heat of the more than half dozen different chiles featured in this menu. Lonestar and Shiner Bock are both widely available Texas staples, as are Mexican imports such as Modelo, Corona or Tecate.
If you’re looking for something a little more bracing but still refreshing, you can’t go wrong with a good Margarita. There are more competing origin stories of who invented the margarita than there are ingredients in this classic cocktail, but there is no doubt that it is one of the most iconic culinary exports of Mexico. We like to keep ours traditional; 3 parts good tequila, 2 parts Cointreau and 1 part lime juice, shaken and poured over ice in a glass with a salted rim. Feel free to switch yours up, as with Texas Mexican cuisine itself, this drink has been adapted and remade in too many ways to count.
The Rio Grande Valley, Texas & Mexico
Before there was a United States-Mexico border, indeed before Texas itself even existed, there were indigenous tribes inhabiting the valley of the Rio Grande. (We’re not talking about the culturally defined area called “The Valley” at the southernmost tip of Texas; we’re talking about the more broad geographic region including southern Texas and northern Mexico, along both sides of the Rio Grande). These native people had distinct culinary traditions, which eventually incorporated many non-native influences to become the Texas Mexican food we’re featuring here. Texas Mexican food is truly distinct from other regional types of Mexican food and from what we often think of as Tex-Mex food (i.e., smothered with melted orange cheese), it deserves its own place in the gastronomic canon. There is some disagreement over the terminology, but at its core, Texas Mexican and “authentic” Tex-Mex are closely related, rooted in the food traditions of the native tribes of the area, while incorporating Spanish and American influences (among others). Defenders of this food point to the more popularized notion of Tex-Mex as inauthentic, and a flat approximation of true Texas Mexican food. The term “Texas Mexican” was developed fairly recently by Adán Madrano, chef and cookbook author, and fierce champion of this cuisine. There is, in reality, a vast spectrum (as with all fusion foods), ranging from foraged food roasted over an open flame to Doritos Locos Tacos delivered via the drive-through window of a Taco Bell. As Josef Centeno says in Amá: A Modern Tex-Mex Kitchen, “The only thing authentic about Tex-Mex is that it isn’t authentic: it evolves and adapts.” There is nothing inherently right or wrong about any of these foods, and most of them are delicious to someone; there will be no crunchy tacos tonight, but we won’t judge you if that’s your jam! At the end of the day, you’ll have some great food to eat, and we’ll try to deliver some food for thought as well.
This menu does coincide with Cinco de Mayo, which is a fairly Americanized celebration with scant allusion to the victory it purportedly honors. Contrary to popular American belief, Cinco de Mayo is not a celebration of Mexican independence; it is celebrated to commemorate the victory of the Mexican Army over French forces at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated mostly in and around Puebla (far from the Rio Grande), and an authentic meal would be entirely different from what we’re delivering here. In the US, Cinco de Mayo is often an opportunity to enjoy all kinds of Mexican and Mexican-inspired food, and thus, it seems like a perfect time to highlight the Texas Mexican food of the Rio Grande region.
The pre-Colombian nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes north and south of the Rio Grande are collectively referred to as Coahuiltecan, though there were hundreds of small tribes with distinct languages and customs. There was great commonality in their food though, as it was based on the flora and fauna of the region. Many of the ingredients are common to Mexican cuisine in general (e.g., maize, chiles, tomatoes, beans), and some are very specific to proximity to the Rio Grande and the Gulf of Mexico (e.g., fish, clams, pecans, mesquite); post-colonization, additional ingredients have been integrated with the infusion of other cultures (e.g., beef, wheat flour, cumin, cilantro). The region does not have clear boundaries, and though the Rio Grande itself now defines a very distinct boundary, for centuries people moved around this area - and back and forth across the river - quite freely. The food we’re delivering to you today represents a mingling of culture, history and culinary identity, located somewhere in the middle of the spectrum we talked about above.
Chef Adán Madrano calls Texas Mexican cooking “comida casera”, which is “home cooking.” It is the food of home kitchens, and cookbooks and recipe collections are filled with nostalgia and memories of grandmothers standing at the stove, wooden spoon in hand. While “Tex-Mex” is often derided as being sanitized restaurant fare, many of the dishes are rooted in a culture of big family meals and gatherings. Recipes are handed down through generations, and some even end up on menus at Tex-Mex restaurants. There are some Tex-Mex dishes that bear little resemblance to what that grandmother was stirring on the stove, to say nothing of what long-ago nomadic tribes were eating; with a little forensic research, though, it is not difficult to trace the lineage of many Tex-Mex dishes back to their Mexican roots, and to identify the ingredients that differentiate them from Mexican fare. There has undoubtedly been cultural appropriation along the historical trajectory of this food - those hard-working grandmothers are not credited by big chain restaurants serving up Tex-Mex fare, and colonization inarguably silenced native voices and traditions. If you’d like to read more about this, see the article linked in the resources below.
It is impossible to talk about this food without acknowledging the current humanitarian crisis along the US-Mexico border. The Rio Grande became the de jure border between the United States and Mexico in 1848, at the end of the Mexican-American War. The complexities and history of the border fall outside of our scope here (there are some informational resources linked below), but there are many organizations working hard to illuminate the crisis, and to alleviate some of the terrible suffering there. We’ll be donating $20 of every ticket sold from this menu to The Refugee And Immigrant Center For Education And Legal Services, a Texas based non-profit organization working on the ground providing legal and social services to immigrants and their families.
Featured Recipe: Enchiladas de Queso
Adapted from “Truly Texas Mexican” by Chef Adán Medrano
Makes 6-8 servings
4 dried ancho chiles, seeded and deveined
1 dried pasilla chile, seeded and deveined
1 dried chipotle chile, seeded and deveined
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
16 g garlic (about 4-5 cloves)
¼ tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp salt
½ tsp dried Mexican oregano
¼ cup all purpose flour
2 tbsp canola oil
8 cups water
18 corn tortillas
280 g white onion, finely diced (about 1 large white onion)
280 g queso fresco, crumbled
Cover the cleaned and deveined chiles with water and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and let the chiles steep for 15 mins to rehydrate and become tender.
Drain the chiles and discard the water.
Place the rehydrated chiles, cumin, garlic, pepper, salt and oregano in the food processor along with enough water (about ½ cup) to make a thin paste and blend until smooth.
In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium and add the chile paste. Cook for 4-5 mins, being careful about splatter, until the color begins to deepen.
Dissolve the flour completely in the 8 cups of water and add it to the chile and bring to a boil. Continue boiling for 30 mins, until the flour has cooked completely and the chile thickens, the flavors develop and volume has reduced by about half. Taste and adjust for salt.
Turn the heat to low, and while keeping the chile hot, use two tongs or spatulas to immerse a corn tortilla in the chile sauce for 8-10 seconds, until it is hot but not losing it’s structure. Too long and it will fall apart, too short and it will not soften properly.
Place the chile infused tortilla flat on a plate and add 2 tbsp cheese, ½ tbsp diced onions. Roll them and arrange them seam down.
Repeat with all tortillas and top with remaining chile sauce. Garnish with remaining onion and cheese.
Recipes Inspired By:
Truly Texas Mexican: A Native Culinary Heritage in Recipes by Adán Medrano.
Amá: A Modern Tex-Mex Kitchen by Josef Centeno and Betty Hallock.
An article by Adán Medrano on cultural appropriation and Texas Mexican cuisine.
A history of the US-Mexico border, with an excellent graphic showing the evolution of the border.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning deep dive into the border, the wall, and the stories of people there.
A brief history of the Margarita